The year was 2010. The setting was my intermediate print-journalism class at Cal State Fullerton. Flor Edwards, one of my students, was part of my “Love, Sex and Romance” mock press conference. Three volunteer female student panelists stood before the class taking questions from their male classmates about all things love, sex and romance. Then, the female students would interrogate three male panelists. Afterward, students had to write an article about what transpired.
Over the years, I heard so many lurid questions and responses that nothing surprised me—until I met Flor. Her ribald tales about her scandalous childhood and experimental adulthood that included relationships with women and the occasional threesome made her classmates’ midnight confessions seem positively tame.
Who was this provocateur hiding in plain sight?
Flor, perhaps my best writing student, had mastered the fine art of politely but firmly keeping her distance.
During the course of the semester, I picked up a few interesting tidbits: Her mother was Swedish; Flor had 11 brothers and sisters; and UC Berkeley had accepted her, but she decided to go to CSUF.
Oh, and Flor had grown up in the notorious Children of God cult, the same one that had stolen the childhoods of Joaquin Phoenix, his late brother River Phoenix and Rose McGowan. When Flor was a little girl, the doomsday cult, beset with allegations of incest, allegations of adult-child sex and widespread psychological abuse, had prophesied that the world would end in 1993. Flor lived in terror that she would die at age 12.
After she graduated, Flor and I kept in touch sporadically. I wrote her a letter of recommendation for creative-writing programs at UC Riverside and Columbia University, both accepted her for graduate school. Occasionally, we dropped each other a line.
She reappeared in my life earlier this year, after authoring Apocalypse Child: A Life in End Times. Her wrenching memoir details the isolation, frequent beatings and emotional abuse she exerienced as a child in a cult that preached free love, “flirty fishing” and an apocalypse that never came. Flor had quite a story to tell, replete with false prophets, absentee parents, suicide attempts and redemption.
We met at the now-closed Classic Rock Coffee in Fullerton, the first of many conversations. Her dirty-blond hair framing her youthful face, Flor, now 36, looked strong, healthy and happy, much as she had as my student nearly a decade earlier. We discussed how liberated she felt in writing and sharing her story with the world as Led Zeppelin blasted in the background.
Still, she had her moments. “I occasionally get mad because of certain struggles I face. It’s like having an invisible disability,” Flor confided. “People look at me and think I’m normal, but they don’t understand the struggles I have.”
* * * * *
The evolution of the Children of God from a haven for lost hippies to an oppressive, abusive cult sheds light on Flor’s traumatic journey from abused child to broken teenager to healing grownup.
David Brandt Berg came from a long line of evangelical Christians. At a young age, he struggled with his sexual urges. When he was 3, his mother caught the future founder and leader of the Children of God masturbating in church, Flor writes in Apocalypse Child. His mom allegedly ordered him to finish the act in front of his father. As a young preacher, Berg claimed he had experienced sexual desire for his mother in his early 20s while the two shared a hotel during one of their evangelical missions.
Berg struggled with his unholy sexual urges. Eventually, he came up with a new paradigm that abolished guilt and celebrated sin as a pathway to forgiveness. One of his founding principles: “Anything done in the name of God is pure and good and should be celebrated and condoned.” Berg’s new belief system encouraged sexual freedom and unconditional love, an attractive tonic for the spiritual seekers to whom he would later minister.
In 1968, the then-49-year-old Berg established the Children of God in Huntington Beach. Many of the drug-addled hippies of the day seemed lost to him. Father David, as he now called himself, believed that God ordained him to save them from eternal damnation. With his message of free love and salvation and a promise to return humanity back to the Garden of Eden, he attracted new followers, a veritable youthful brigade. They formed a singing group called Teens for Christ and performed locally. And they had lots and lots of sex.
If you lived through the ’60s and didn’t join a band or a cult, then you didn’t really live through the ’60s. “Jesus Christ, it was the ’60s!” Flor said with a laugh.
In the late ’70s, Flor’s mother joined the Children of God after meeting a member she described as “having eyes that were full of light.” He strummed a guitar on a street corner and told her about Jesus. Other members made her feel accepted as never before. She dumped her fiancé and life in Sweden and joined the group, eventually making her way to Spain.
Halfway across the world, Flor’s father had dropped out of UC Davis just two weeks before he would have graduated at the top of his class as a geology major to instead follow his five older siblings into Children of God. A while later, Flor’s parents met and fell in love in Majorca, Spain.
Even at the height of the Children of God’s Age of Aquarius, dark clouds gathered.
When they joined, Flor’s parents, like all members, gave up all possessions at Father David’s behest. They also severed relationships with “systemites,” or evil ones, which included anybody outside the group such as “unenlightened” parents and grandparents.
To recruit new members and fill the cult’s coffers, Father David encouraged young female members to seduce wealthy men and turn them on to the Children of God. The practice, which the group abandoned after a spate of bad press, was known as “flirty fishing.” Flor’s older brother came out of such a union.
* * * * *
Flor and her identical-twin sister Tamar were born in 1981, the fourth and fifth of her mother’s 12 children. (Father David discouraged birth control, so Children of God could breed more “End-Time” soldiers to fight against evil.) Because the amount of children gradually began to outnumber adults, the cult grew far more restrictive and repressive.
“Any time you have to control another person, that’s when things became more structured and more deliberate,” Flor said. “I think in the beginning, it was much more free and impulsive.”
That certainly wasn’t Flor’s or her siblings’ experience in the Children of God.
While in hiding, Father David communicated with his followers through long-winded letters. His adult foot soldiers told cult children what to think, read, watch and even feel. “A clandestine cult with 20 children to a room; no outside music, movies or books; and no contact beyond the compound. For the first 15 years of my life, this was my normal,” Flor writes in Narratively, a digital publication focusing on in-depth storytelling.
In 1985, Father David declared the United States was a whore and encouraged followers to leave the West and preach to the developing world. He said he had a revelation from God that the world would end in 1993. The U.S. and other western nations would be the first to burn in hell. Flor, her family and other cult members all had spots in heaven and could take whomever was willing to join them. Only 144,000 believers, according to Father David, would find salvation.
Flor and her expanding family soon moved to Thailand to “witness”—sing songs, dance, preach the gospel and beg for donations. Over the next seven years, they moved every six months to a new compound that isolated them behind high walls topped with barbed wire.
Flor became obsessed with death. She calculated that her life would end before her 13th birthday. Despite promises of a heavenly afterlife, Flor often thought about how she would die before her “rebirth” and how much pain she would have to endure.
“I knew for sure that I was going to heaven since I was one of God’s children, but the threshold to get there seemed insurmountable,” Flor writes in Narratively.
She began to think about all the possible ways that she could die—primitive ways that she’d heard about, mostly from the Bible stories or movies such as The Ten Commandments or Jesus of Nazareth. “I formulated elaborate images [in] my mind of being burned at the stake like Joan of Arc,” she said. “Being crucified upside-down, where the head fills with blood and slowly bursts; being beheaded like John the Baptist; or stoned to death like the prostitutes in the Bible stories or movies we’d watch.”
She eventually prayed that she would get shot, thinking it the quickest and most painless way to go.
Flor and other cult children also lived in constant fear of brutal beatings for minor “infractions”—or for no reason at all. The adults, she said, wanted to control the young ones and did so using hateful words or their fists. Punishments were doled out using a demerit chart. “We became accustomed to scheduled punishments or humiliations, often without knowing what we had done wrong,” Flor said. “We also became quite used to unexpected and erratic outbursts of discipline.”
Two incidents stand out for their cruelty.
One night, “Uncle Peter” was reading bedtime stories from the “Heaven’s Girl” series, “an apocalyptic sex comic book,” in Flor’s words. As he read, a girl on the bottom bunk began tugging at Flor’s leg. She tried to ignore the girl, but burly Uncle Peter noticed that Flor had momentarily stopped paying attention. He made his way toward her.
“I didn’t have time to think before he lifted me in the air. He held me by my arms. My shoulders froze. My legs dangled,” Flor writes. “He slammed me down on the bed. I landed on my tailbone. Shock waves shot up my spine. My brain went numb and tingly. My throat dried up. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. For a moment, my whole world stopped with that slam to my tailbone.”
Then Uncle Peter calmly picked up the book and continued reading.
Another time, 9-year-old Flor had accumulated a total of five check marks next to her name on a demerit chart, indicating the vices of disobedience, foolishness, defiance, disorderly conduct and pride—big no-nos. She was told that after lunch, her beloved Uncle Paul would punish her with a wooden paddle, even though she wasn’t sure what she’d done wrong.
Before the beating, Uncle Paul handed Flor a giant ladybug pillow to muffle her screams. Flor asked him if her mother sanctioned the punishment. Uncle Paul told the terrified Flor that her mom considered this “the best course of action.” He began beating her buttocks with such force that her legs gave way beneath her.
“I was beginning to see that the adults, Mom and Dad included, would take whatever measure necessary to keep us in line and loyal to Father David’s teachings,” Flor writes. “I began to withdraw further and further inside myself, unable to handle both the fear of death that was always with me and now recognition of what adults were turning into.”
* * * * *
Sexual abuse and allegations of incest have long surrounded the Children of God, now known as the Family. Father David countenanced not only free love, but also sex between adults and children, at least for the cult’s first few years.
Father David also had a hankering for young girls. He kept a private stash of videos of scarf-clad girls dancing provocatively. By age 7, Flor knew the basics of how to sexually satisfy both men and women from reading Father David’s explicit letters.
Though she never experienced sexual abuse, Flor heard many stories over the years about molested Children of God girls and witnessed inappropriate behavior herself. In her book, she writes of hearing moaning adults in walled-off rooms having orgies. Then there was the masturbating 9-year-old.
Somehow, this hyper-sexualized little girl had found a way to get herself off. And she wasn’t shy about doing it when the grownups were away. So, Flor and the other girls in the house, about 20 in all, hatched a plan to trick her. They pretended to join her, all simulating masturbation, encouraging the girl to let herself go, to really go for it. As she furiously touched herself and neared ecstasy, the other girls began to mock her until the little girl broke down in tears.
The bullying had little to do with onanism.
“Hurt people, hurt people,” Flor said. “Because of the environment we were in, it kind of turned into Lord of the Flies. The girl was weak, so, we ganged up on her.”
* * * * *
The year 1993 came and went with the world still intact; Father David’s prophecy proved false. The charismatic cult leader found a way to spin it, though. God, he told his followers, was pleased with their work and gave them an “extension.” Flor began having her doubts.
Father David encouraged followers to come back home, reversing his earlier edict that they flee the West because of its sinful ways. Flor and her family returned to Southern California.
Father David died on Oct. 1, 1994. With his passing, the bonds that so connected Flor’s parents to the cult began to fray. With so many mouths to feed, they became more concerned with supporting their family. Flor’s brother John left first. Then Flor and two of her sisters told their mother they wanted out. Surprisingly, she conceded. “We just want what’s best for you. And if that’s what you want, then that’s fine,” her mother said.
Flor, Tamar and their older sister Mary Ann were also allowed to enroll in a home-school program. “I was 14 years old and had never attended a real school,” Flor writes. “This was my first step toward a normal future.”
Having never spoken to children outside the cult, Flor had little idea how to interact with classmates. She finally decided to befriend a cool girl named Kristen, who wore flannel shirts, jeans and other trendy clothes. Flor wrote her a note: “Dear Kristen, I would like to be your friend . . .”
Kristen read it, looked at Flor and never spoke to her again.
Flor’s awkward and failed attempt at friendship was the first of many social missteps. Growing up cut off from the outside world, Flor didn’t know how to interact with people or have a healthy relationship. She had no knowledge of popular culture and zero social skills. For much of her life, the Children of God, damaging as it was, had given her structure and stability; it taught her what to wear, what to eat, what to listen to and what to think.
Now, Flor could make her own choices. She was free—or was she?
“It wasn’t so much growing up in a cult that was difficult,” Flor said. “It was actually coming into the world.”
Flor’s difficulty in adjusting to modern American social norms manifested itself her first day at Rowland High School. Her Spanish teacher sent her home from school for wearing a blouse that showed too much cleavage. He said she could only return if she wore something more modest. “I did not understand the proper rules of dress code,” Flor writes in Narratively. “Showing a little cleavage was no big deal to my teenage mind.”
But learning that she had been in a cult was. A few days later, Flor stopped by the local library and thumbed through an issue of Seventeen magazine. Black bold letters read, “Did you grow up in a cult?”
Did you grow up in a secluded environment? Check. Under the influence of a charismatic leader? Check. Coerced to recruit members to the group? Check. Taught that the outside world was a forbidden place? Check.
“For the next few weeks after taking the Seventeen quiz,” Flor writes, “the words ran like a mantra through my mind: ‘Oh my God . . . I grew up in a cult. . . . Where do I go from here?’”
The answer was downhill.
Flor had suspected she had grown up in a cult, and now she had proof. She shared the horrific news with some of her siblings. Like her, they reacted with rage and rebelliousness, channeling much of that anger toward their parents—and themselves. They felt like outcasts. “I started coming home from school drunk,” Flor writes in Apocalypse Child. “I would shout at Mom and Dad, ‘You raised us in a cult! How could you? I hate you! I should’ve never been born! You should’ve never had any of us!’”
Flor descended into a life of booze and drugs to medicate her inner turmoil. She ended up getting kicked out of high school twice for alcohol and weed, despite maintaining a 4.0 GPA. At her alternative school, she and Tamar—who had also been expelled and was on a path of self-destruction—witnessed bloody fights among gang bangers. They did more drugs and alcohol to numb the pain.
After Flor’s “friend” smashed a lunch box on her head in a jealous, drunken rage, Flor had had enough. She grabbed a handful of aspirin one night and washed the pills down with vodka. “I had grown up in a world where I was prohibited from making decisions,” Flor writes. “But there’s one freedom we have as humans: It’s the will to live or die.”
* * * * *
Flor didn’t die, although she did spend a long night throwing up in the toilet. Her near-death experience gave her a renewed will to live.
After surviving her suicide attempt, Flor cleaned up and returned to high school and graduated with honors. Enrolling in junior college, Flor took an English course that required a 10-page research paper. She knew exactly what she wanted to write about. “As I started to write, I discovered my childhood was a gold mine for material, no longer a piece of my past weighing down on me,” Flor writes in Apocalypse Child. “It had color and texture. Darkness and tragedy, too, but most of all, I had something to work with. Like a potter uses clay, I had material with which to form stories. When I wrote, I had a voice, something I never had growing up.”
Her professor gave Flor an A. She promised him that she would one day write a book about her experiences.
And so she has. Kirkus Reviews calls Apocalypse Child “an impressive religious memoir—candid and inspiring without being sensationalistic or self-pitying.” Publishers Weekly says the book is a “wrenching testimony about a complicated childhood reclaimed.” Foreward Reviews praises it as “an engrossing account of growing up within the strangely insular Children of God cult.”
The process of putting her thoughts on paper, of reliving the myriad traumas she suffered in the cult, was more difficult than Flor could’ve possibly imagined. She began penning her memoir in 2005; Turner Publishing Co. put it out 13 years later—nearly the same amount of time that Flor had spent in Children of God.
She wrote to take control of her story, to understand what happened to her and to heal. “I sometimes cried while writing. There were times I almost couldn’t work, but finishing this book had a cathartic effect,” Flor said. “I think when you go through something traumatic, there’s a technique in the military where they actually make you sit there and listen to the sounds of bombs. I kind of did that through my memories.”
And she’s not done. Flor hopes to write another book, perhaps about her life after the cult, perhaps something entirely different. She’s not sure. What Flor does know, though, is that she has finally found her voice. Life is good. Her relationship with her parents is stronger than ever, her bitterness toward them long since dissipated. Flor has never felt more optimistic, more confident and more capable. She feels proud of and validated by Apocalypse Child’s reception.
Still, the scars of growing up in the Children of God remain, even if mostly hidden.
Three of Flor’s sisters’ whereabouts are unknown; Flor has lost touch with them. She says she never wants to have her own kids: “After what happened to me, there’s no way I was going to bring a child into this world.” She has no intention of marriage, a result of her inability to fully trust others or to plan too far into the future. Or perhaps, Flor said, just because she never learned to live in the fantasy of fairy tales, her life was a wholly different kind of fiction.
Given her lack of socialization as a child, her anxieties as an adult could paralyze her—if she permitted them to.
“I can’t let myself go there. It would be such a deep, dark vortex. There would be no coming out,” Flor said. “I have to literally fight sometimes to keep myself afloat. But that makes life interesting.
“As my mom said, ‘I was born to be a fighter.’”